What Entropy And Thermodynamics Might Tell Us About Skepticism

What Entropy And Thermodynamics Might Tell Us About Skepticism October 16, 2017

I’ve expressed elsewhere that I think that the thermodynamic concept of entropy has been poorly communicated compared to other scientific topics. Obviously, as someone who is now masters-level educated in engineering, thermodynamics comes much more easily to me than the average person, but I can also recognize when a concept is being unnecessarily misunderstood. The average person obviously doesn’t need to understand the equations behind chemical kinetics or phase-change behavior or molecular conformations, but also it doesn’t hurt to understand fundamental natural phenomena in a way that’s more than just a hand-wave.


Entropy is often explained as “chaos” and “disorder” in popular science portrayals. This is not a terrible first-pass description, since most systems with high entropy appear to have a lot of disorder, and low entropy systems tend to appear organized or have some regular structure. Even talks at seminars and conferences touching on the topic will refer to “order” when it’s relevant. But organization or chaos are more qualitative attributes than quantitative, and there is a more useful way of describing entropy. Essentially, if there are more ways of arranging or conforming molecules or atoms in one way compared to another, then the state with more conformations has more entropy.


One easy way of conceiving the number of conformations available in a state is by imagining a few particles (say, five) in a box. It’s conceivable that they could all stick to one wall, it’s certainly within the laws of physics for them to do so. But particles like atoms and molecules will tend to diffuse throughout the volume due to random molecular motion. It’s not difficult to see that there are many more arrangements of particles spread all over the volume of a box than stuck to one side of the box, and for that reason the molecules spread throughout the box have more entropy. Objects that are randomly spread out throughout the box volume seem less “organized” than if they were able to be placed on the end, and this happens to be a useful shorthand to describe the entropy of a system, but it’s important to understand the underlying principle.


Entropy is why your headphones get tangled in your pocket, or why your burnt eggs on the stove send smoke all around the apartment (setting off your smoke alarm) instead of all staying put or going into the ventilation fan like you would prefer. There’s only one way for your headphones to not wrap around themselves at all and create no knots, and that’s a completely untangled state. However, there are an enormous number of ways for your headphones to create knots and loop into themselves, and so as entropy tends to increase your headphones will tangle up. Likewise, there are much fewer arrangements of smoke particles staying put in the frying pan compared to smoke particles spreading throughout the apartment.


Now, a hard left turn to a seemingly unrelated topic of skepticism. We know there is a great deal of varieties of bullshit out there. There are thousands of denominations of multiple religions, and many of them are incompatible and in direct conflict with each other. There are many scams and pseudoscientific cures and treatments available from non-reputable sources. There are revisionist histories and conspiracy theories coming from hucksters everywhere. On top of these, there are somewhat less harmful forms of nonsense, like old wives’ tales and urban legends that are little more than incorrect trivia. This is odd and frustrating to many of us skeptics. As far as we can tell, we live in the same universe and are subject to the same basic facts and the same rules of nature as anyone else propagating these myths. Why are so many opinions and worldviews coming from what appears to be a wholly separate universe?


If you look at this problem through the lens of thermodynamics, it makes complete sense. There is only one way to be completely correct, and that way is to be completely correct. However, there are an infinite number of ways to be wrong, and the way to do that is to deviate in any way from the truth. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that there is such a variety of wacky and bizarre beliefs out there, it’s simply a function of having a great number of persons that exist.


Thermodynamics may seem like the improper tool to apply to something as nebulous as one’s internally held opinions and worldview, and that’s because it is. Someone’s worldview isn’t as simple as a group of relatively simple molecules bouncing around. I recognize this, so please humor me. Thermodynamics is my Maslow’s hammer, and I see bullshit as a nail I am targeting. If you want to poke holes in (or supplement) my analogy in the comments, all the better. But allow me a modicum of silly obscure geekery to illustrate my point.


There’s only one way to be right about, for example, the 9/11 terror attacks, and that is by aligning your beliefs with what actually happened. The airplanes attacked at a specific time in the day, the towers fell at a particular speed, certain citizens happened to be in the building at the time, and the towers collapsed due to particular chemical and physical properties of its structure (among many other relevant facts). While, of course, there’s no possible way for anyone to know all the facts 100% accurately, we can be reductionist and assume that there is a correct description of what happened. Any deviation from any of these facts is the wrong answer. Change the answers to some of these things, and you’re wrong. And immediately you see the problem, that to be right you have to care about multiple variables in your worldview match up with reality, but to be wrong you don’t have to care about any of the facts.


This wouldn’t be that bad of a problem if we were all wrong with a few things here and there (who isn’t?), but some wrong facts tend to lead to more wrong facts. Most people who spout off that jet fuel can’t melt steel don’t just hold that single inaccurate* belief but go along with the rest of the story. One then begins to wonder what could take two massive buildings down to the ground if it wasn’t jet fuel, and then come up with ridiculous alternatives like planted thermite, and then everything starts to look like a massive conspiracy. Some bullshit leads into other bullshit, and this leads to a massive deviation from what actually happened.


This has unfortunate implications about any beliefs, not just scientific ones. If you, like me, believe in objective morality, then you recognize that there is a best way to promote well-being among as many people as possible. As such, there is a best political system and a best way to construct and engineer a society so the greatest number of people can flourish. Obviously, we are in a time where political division seems to be at an all-time high, which means that there is by necessity a large number of people who aren’t invested in ethical systems that produce well-being for a large number of people. In this sense, moral entropy can be the source of a large amount of suffering and injustice.


You may have heard of the term bullshit asymmetry, which I think is such a fantastic term. This was coined in a tweet by software developer Alberto Brandolini.


This makes sense, because once someone internalizes a belief, it’s often very difficult to get them to change their mind. This could be a result of the anchoring bias, where people are more likely to trust their initial source of information over anything that comes before this. We may have also recognized this concept in the form of the following quote**:


A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.


We are well familiar with this phenomenon. We know that sometimes news outlets will often spread inaccurate information, and any retractions that happen to occur never get the same spread as the original sensationalized and outrageous headlines. Perhaps your political candidate blatantly lied about an easily demonstrable fact, and you believe that person over the simple facts in front of your eyes. Inaccurate memes and “pass it on” emails from your aunt are hard to stop, since they’re so easy to share. It’s much easier to just accept or scroll past a piece of nonsense, because fact checking requires work and taking time out of your day. Regardless of what it is, many of us who are used to correcting bullshit and misinformation know that it’s a difficult task, and trying to repair misinformation feels closer to damage control than simply spreading a positive message.


I think the concept of bullshit asymmetry also falls within my thermodynamic model, because in thermodynamics it takes energy to reduce entropy. A refrigerator reduces entropy by “organizing” heat outside of the system***, but it can only do this via a pump that is powered by an electric cord. A plant reduces entropy by creating “order” in the form of structured cells out of the energy from the sun. Likewise, if we are going to “organize” more people’s beliefs (including our own beliefs) to become more accurate and consistent with the world around us, we have to put some work in. Ideally, while there is room where reasonable people can disagree, we should ideally all have beliefs that are relatively close together, since ideally everyone’s beliefs should match reality. I’m not surprised that instead of the aggregate of human worldviews being organized in a nice, tidy, cluster they are thoroughly spread out in every possible direction, because that’s basically how the rest of nature behaves when left to its own devices.


I think this is the key point: skepticism takes a lot of work, and it is not sufficient to simply disbelieve things to be a good skeptic. You also have to put the work in to make sure that your beliefs align with the best evidence, and we have to put in the effort to maintaining accurate beliefs.


It also illustrates the efforts we have to put in to promote truth and well-being. I have previously made my case that the best ideas will not always win out by virtue of their usefulness or truthfulness, because not all debates are rational and there is propaganda everywhere that is able to capture the general public’s attention. I argue that we need to be responsible with our platforms and how much legitimacy we want to grant abject nonsense by engaging with it. When you add thermodynamics to the mix, it simply illustrates the work we have to do to engage with the world and push everyone we can further towards the truth. If we become complacent and simply assume that everyone’s opinions will simply converge towards a similar worldview, we are kidding ourselves. We all have too many internal biases, varying perspectives, ingrained sociocultural expectations, media bubbles, and malicious sources of propaganda and charlatans vying for our attention to expect the truth to always win out in every given situation.


Perhaps this makes sense to you, perhaps it doesn’t. Whether or not the semi-obscure field of statistical thermodynamics is the best use of analogy, I think there’s at least a kernel of truth to it. As skeptics, we are constrained to caring about facts and evidence. Anyone who doesn’t has no such obligation towards evidence, and it is especially hard when someone is further unconstrained by moral principles or a desire for good-faith rational discourse. There is a lot of bullshit out there simply because there is capacity for bullshit. And it takes a lot of work to rope it in, we can’t just expect everything to work out.




*Burning jet fuel may not be hot enough to melt steel to transition it from a solid into a liquid state, but an elevated temperature could easily reduce the structural strength of the steel to cause collapse.


**In an amusing self-demonstrating way, this quote appears to not be the original form of the quote, nor is it actually from Mark Twain, who people often attribute the quote to.


***It reduces the entropy of the refrigerator system on its own, but the total entropy of the refrigerator, the room, and the power source altogether will increase.

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